Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 26 January 2019


With today’s IT revolution, research effort is so much easier that one is led to wonder why our legislators (mainly from the Lower House) seem to ignore the activity. Are they Jurassic? Or are they plain lazy?

Reader, let me share what I learned through Google about Republic Act No. 9344 (establishing a comprehensive juvenile justice and welfare system), passed in 2006, and RA 10630 (an act strengthening the juvenile justice system and amending RA 9344), passed in 2013. House Bill No. 8388 (in its original form) is what the House is trying to foist on us.

RA 9344 is beautiful, with all the right words about adhering to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international declarations (it is why the 15-year minimum age for criminal responsibility was chosen in the first place). It puts the child first, and creates a national Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC),  with regional counterparts.

Well then, why amend it, as was done with RA 10630? As far as I can see, the latter transfers the responsibility for the implementation of the system from the Department of Justice (RA 9344) to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. There seem to be cosmetic changes as well: the Youth Rehabilitation Center is renamed Bahay Pag-asa; and the LGUs in the earlier version that are supposed to have these centers are now specifically listed as all provinces (81) and all highly urbanized cities (33). If there are substantive changes, I missed them.

Now comes HB 8388, the latest incarnation; essentially it wanted to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 to 9 years old—and raised it to 12 when the shit hit the fan. The Senate always wanted 12.

Frankly, I don’t see why the MACR has to be changed at all. Congress has its eye on the wrong ball. What we need is to implement the law properly.

Why shouldn’t the MACR be lowered to 12? First, the “theoretical” considerations: In the Philippines, the labor force is defined as those 15 years and over who are either working or looking for work. Until then, it is society’s responsibility to prepare the child to become a productive member of that labor force. So every child under 15 seen out of school during school hours should be called to book—to go to school, that is. Not to be brought to a rehabilitation center or an agricultural camp.

Isn’t it ridiculous to forbid children below 13 from watching a movie, and yet consider them old enough to be responsible for criminal acts? Those children should be in school—at least until 15. That’s why we have free primary and secondary education (even tertiary, thanks to the same misguided Congress).

Second, the “practical.” The current amended law called for the establishment of Youth Rehabilitation Centers/Bahay Pag-asa. Twelve years have passed. We should have at least 114 (81+33) by now. Depending on who you ask, there are only either 48 (5 nonoperational), according to the 2017 annual report of the JJWC), or 63 (5 nonoperational), according to the executive director of such council. That’s a success rate of at most 50 percent. What’s more, some of those centers can accommodate less than 20 “clients.”

Which is why executive director Tricia Oco bemoaned the fact that some Bahays are “worse than prisons,” with “subhuman conditions” due to budget constraints.

Moreover, lowering the MACR will add to  the additional “demand” for these centers. By how much? An estimate, attributable to the PNP, was that in 2018, there were 9,562 child offenders reported. Unfortunately, their distribution according to age, if aggregated, showed a total of only 8,579, of whom 5,047 were ages 15-19; 3,082 were 12-15, 358 were 9-11, 83 were 6-8, and 9 were below 6 years old.

Using the second estimate, lowering the minimum age to 12 would add an average of 71 people per center, to a system already bursting at the seams.

Still willing to give the Senate and the House the benefit of the doubt? Here’s the kicker: the Regional JJWCs, apparently to a man, raised their opposition to the lowering of the minimum age. That’s ground level resistance, from hands-on experts. Congress should at least ask them why.